NASA has shown a willingness to support commercial space efforts in the past decade and the desire to enable these companies shows no sign of slowing down. The space agency announced on Monday, March 28, that it is seeking proposals from private firms to enter into unfunded Space Act Agreements (SAAs) with NASA. It is hoped that this latest initiative will develop even more commercial space capabilities.
“The growing U.S. commercial spaceflight industry is opening low-Earth orbit in ways that will improve lives on Earth, drive economic growth and power 21st century innovations,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, William Gerstenmaier. “As NASA again pioneers a path into deep space, we look forward to sharing our 50 years of spaceflight experience and fostering partnerships in ways that benefit our nation’s ambitious spaceflight goals.”
It is hoped that the new Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC) initiative will accelerate commercial efforts by providing these firms with greater access to NASA’s resources as well as the agency’s wealth of data and experience.
NASA has had success in the past using SAAs, with the agency able to cultivate an array of partners in the commercial sector. However, to qualify, potential partners must show that their proposals meet one of more elements of NASA’s 2014 Strategic Plan. Under this initiative NASA lays out the ground work for human exploration and expansion into the solar system.
No money would change hands under this agreement and both NASA and a possible partner would each cover their own expenses. NASA would contribute the cumulative wealth of more than 50 years of launching humans to orbit, the technologies developed therein and more.
The agency has shared its technology with private space firms in the past. One prominent example is Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator more commonly known as “PICA.” This hear-resistant material, patented by NASA’s Ames Research Center back in the 90s, was used by Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX). The Hawthorne, California-based company began developing the material for use on its Dragon spacecraft. The company worked with the material from 2006-2010, modifying it to become what is now known as “PICA-X.” PICA-X was produced by SpaceX with only a handful of engineers – at an estimated 10th of the cost it took NASA to produce the material it originated from. Examples such as this have encouraged NASA to seek out more partnerships with private companies.
“As with NASA’s previous unfunded commercial partnerships, U.S. companies significantly benefit from the agency’s extensive infrastructure, experience and knowledge in spaceflight development and operations,” said NASA’s Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development, Phil McAlister. “We hope these partnerships will increase the likelihood that these entrepreneurial activities will be successful.”
NASA is set to issue a call for proposals at the end of this month under CCSC. It will then competitively select one, possibly more SAAs. The space agency has issued a release stating it will host a teleconference on April 2 to further detail the initiative. If all proceeds forward as planned, it will be the latest step in a growing trend toward inter-dependence on the private space industry.
These latest efforts can be traced back to a program initiated under then-President George W. Bush with what would become the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services or “COTS” program. The Commercial Resupply Services and Commercial Crew Program would follow. Just this past year, NASA announced its Lunar CATALYST initiative, which seeks proposals for a possible commercial robotic lunar lander. The Obama White House has directed NASA to use its Orion Multi-Purpose Crew spacecraft, set to conduct its first flight later this year as well as the agency’s new heavy-lift booster, the Space Launch System, to send crews to an asteroid. Not missing a commercial beat, NASA announced the Asteroid Redirect Mission Broad Agency Announcement, which seeks proposals from commercial companies.